Varna (450,000 inhabitants) is Bulgaria’s largest city on the Black Sea coast and the country’s major harbour and holiday capital. It is the second most important economic centre of Bulgaria after Sofia, the country's foremost trade link to Russia, and one of the major hubs for the Black Sea region. It is situated on both shores of Varna Bay and Varna Lake. The climate of the town is temperate with subtropical influences of breezy hot summers and mild but windy winters.
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Varna is among Europe's oldest cities. Long before the Thracians populated the area (by 2500 BCE) there were several prehistoric settlements best known for the Varna Copper age necropolis. The eponymous site of the old European Varna culture (4600-4200 BCE) and one of the world's oldest large find of gold artefacts (mid-5-th millennium BCE), were found within the modern city limits. Miletians founded the trading colony of Odessos in 570 BCE within an earlier Thracian settlement. The name Odessos, first mentioned by Strabo, was pre-Greek, perhaps of Carian origin. Odessos was a member of the Pontic Pentapolis and a mixed Greco-Thracian community— a contact zone between the Ionians and the Thracians. In 339 BCE, the city was unsuccessfully besieged by Philip II but surrendered to Alexander the Great in 335 BCE, and was later ruled by his diadochus Lysimachus. The Romans annexed the city in 15 CE to the province of Moesia. At that time it occupied 47 hectares in the present-day centre of Varna and had prominent public baths - now the largest Roman remains in Bulgaria and fourth-largest known Roman baths in Europe. Odessos was an early Christian centre, as testified by the ruins of perhaps ten early basilicas, a monastery, and indications that one of the Seventy Disciples, Ampliatus, a follower of Saint Andrew, served as bishop there. In 442, a peace treaty between Theodosius II and Attila was signed at Odessus. In 536, Justinian I made it the seat of the Quaestura exercitus institution including Moesia, Scythia, Caria, the Aegean Islands and Cyprus.
Theophanes the Confessor is the first to mention the name Varna, as the city came to be known with the Slavic conquest of the Balkans in the 6th-7th century. Recent scholarship has suggested that the first Bulgarian capital in the Balkans was perhaps located around Varna before it moved to Pliska.
Bulgarian Hagan Asparukh (668-700) fortified the Varna river lowland with a rampart against a possible Byzantine naval landing. Control changed from Byzantine to Bulgarian hands several times during the Middle Ages. By the late 13th and 14th century, it had turned into a thriving commercial hub frequented by Genoese, Venetian and Ragusan merchant ships (the three republics held consulates and had expatriate colonies there). Wheat and other local agricultural produce for the Italian and Constantinople markets were the chief exports, and Mediterranean foods and luxury items were imported. Shipbuilding also developed in the Kamchiya river mouth.
14th-century Italian portolan charts showed Varna as the most important seaport between Constantinople and the Danube delta; they usually labelled the region Zagora. The city was unsuccessfully besieged by Amadeus VI of Savoy in 1366; in 1386, it briefly became the capital of the Principality of Karvuna, then was taken over by the Ottomans in 1389 (and again in 1444), ceded temporarily to Manuel II Palaiologos in 1413 (perhaps until 1444), and sacked by Tatars in 1414.
On November 10, 1444, one of the last major battles of the Crusades was fought outside the city walls. The Turks routed an army of 20,000 crusaders led by king Ladislaus III of Poland, which had assembled at the port to set sail to Constantinople. The Christian army was attacked by a superior force of 55,000 or 60,000 Ottomans led by sultan Murad II. Ladislaus III was killed in a bold attempt to capture the sultan, earning the sobriquet Warneńczyk (of Varna in Polish). The failure of the Crusade of Varna made the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 all but inevitable, and Varna (with all of Bulgaria) was to remain under Ottoman domination for over four centuries. Today, there is a cenotaph of Ladislaus III in Varna.
The British and French campaigns against Russia in the Crimean War (1854-1856) used Varna as headquarters and principal naval base; many soldiers died of cholera and the city was devastated by a fire. A British and a French monument mark the cemeteries where cholera victims were interred. In 1866, the first railroad in Bulgaria connected Varna with Russe on the Danube, linking the Ottoman capital Istanbul with Central Europe - for a few years the Orient Express ran through that route. With the national liberation in 1878, the city, which numbered 25-26 thousand inhabitants, was ceded to Bulgaria by the Treaty of Berlin. Over the first decades after the 1878 liberation, most ethnic Turks and Greeks departed and Bulgarian refugees from Northern Dobruja, Bessarabia, Asia Minor, Macedonia and Eastern Thrace arrived. Following the Second Balkan War (1913) and the First World War (1915-1918), ethnic diversity gave way to Bulgarian predominance, although sizeable minorities of Gagauz, Armenians, and Sephardic Jews remained for decades.
The town offers all the connections and services required for a pleasant stay as well as nice shopping areas, crowded streets with town cafes and attractive opportunities for nightlife and sports.
More than 150 cultural and historic monuments of different periods have been preserved in Varna. Most outstanding among them are remains of Roman baths (2nd-3rd century), the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin (1883-1886), the church of St Athanasius (13th century) with interesting frescos and an exhibition of a collection of prints, lithographs, church service books from the Bulgarian Revival Period, etc. The Dolphinarium can be visited in the Marine Garden. Also located here are the Planetarium of Nicholas Copernicus, the Summertime Theatre, the Festival Complex, the Museum of the Black Sea, the Aquarium and the Palace of sports and culture.
Among Varna’s frequented spots are also some remarkable museums: the Archaeological Museum (with the unique collection of finds from the Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis), the Museum of History of Medicine (the only one in the Balkans), the Museum of Maritime Economy, the National Navy Museum, the Ethnographic Museum, the Museum of the National Revival Period, the Museum of the History of Varna, the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Tourism, the Wladislaw Varnenchik Museum Park, the Art Gallery, etc. The Asparuhov Bridge in Varna is the longest one in Bulgaria (2 km). It connects the city centre with the residential quarters of Asparouhovo and Galata. The local club of extreme sports organizes bungee jumps here.